Unless a Child Is Born

Psalm 127 | A Song of Ascents. Of Solomon

[1] Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake in vain.
[2] It is in vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives to his beloved sleep.
[3] Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord,
the fruit of the womb a reward.
[4] Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are the children of one’s youth.
[5] Blessed is the man
who fills his quiver with them!
He shall not be put to shame
when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.

This is the word of God in Psalm 127. 

 

And this psalm, Psalm 127, might sound a little confusing to us at first. And that’s because there are two parts here in this psalm that don’t seem to have any connection to each other (you may have just felt that when you heard it). First, you have verses 1–2 and the topic is work, vanity, anxiety; and then second, you have verses 3–5 and the topic turns to the blessing of children — and it’s not clear right away what children have to do with these first two verses, especially in verse 2 when it talks about getting sleep. This is a little confusing.

At first it’s builders and watchman and the vanity of work without God, and then suddenly in verse 3 it turns into Focus on the Family — and this doesn’t make sense to us, at least not right away. So how do these two parts of Psalm 127 fit together? 

That’s the question that we’re going to try to answer in today’s sermon. The outline is just going to be these two parts. 

 

It looks like this: 

  1. In Part One of Psalm 127, verses 1 and 2, we see the Vanity of Self-Salvation; 
  2. Then in Part Two, verses 3 to 5, we see the Blessing of Children. 

So it’s the “vanity of self-salvation” and the “blessing of children.” Now, how in the world are they connected? Because they are. And I want us to see this. So let’s pray together and get started. 

So how does Part One (verses 1–2) fit together with Part Two (verses 3–5)? To figure this out we need to look at both of these more closely, starting with the first one here.

1. The Vanity of Self-Salvation (verses 1–2)

And we can see right away that vanity is a theme in these two verses because it’s repeated three times. 

  • Unless the Lord build the house, those who build it labor in vain
  • Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.  
  • Then right away in verse 2: It’s in vain that you, basically, are doing all this stuff. 

So the message here is pretty straightforward. At a broad level, we learn from these verses that any human endeavor apart from God is ultimately useless. Now this psalm is not saying builders shouldn’t build and watchman should watch — it’s just saying that if you build and watch without God it won’t last. Ultimately, all human endeavor separated from God will come to nothing. 

And there’s a broad application with that. You can apply this to all sorts of things (I just applied it to preaching when I prayed). You can apply it to leadership; you can apply it to projects at your work; you can apply it to your goals in family — it applies to all kinds of things. HOWEVER — I think Psalm 127 is being more specific. So although what is said here might apply to a lot things, the psalmist isn’t just trying to dish out life advice. In verse 1 he means to say “house” and the means to say “city.” He has something in mind, and in order for us to see that we have to take a step back for a minute and get some context. 

The Context of These Songs

So we’re in a section of psalms here called the Songs of Ascents that goes from Psalm 120 to Psalm 134. And last week we started in Psalm 120 and Psalm 121, and the psalmist says there: “Woe to me that I sojourn in Meshech, that I dwell among the tents of Kedar!” The psalmist is in exile. He’s a long ways away from Jerusalem, and he doesn’t like it. He’s homesick. And we talked about how he’s not just homesick for a place, but he’s homesick for the final salvation of God’s people. 

Again, I just want to lay all my cards on the table here: I believe these psalms, the Songs of Ascents, are looking to the future, end-of-time reality when God rescues his people for good. They’re pointing to the day when God will bring his people to his place to live under his rule forever. I think that’s what these psalms are about. 

And Psalm 120 starts with our eyes fixed there — the psalmist wants to be there — and then Psalm 121 comes and tells us that God is with us every step of the way — not just when we get there, but as we are getting there. That’s Psalm 120 and 121 — now, what about the other psalms leading up to Psalm 127?

Well, they’re important, and I want you to see what’s going on there. So what I want to do here is just give you a quick summary of these psalms. I’m going to just run through each of them quickly, so hang on tight, starting with Psalm 122.  

A Look at Psalms 122–126 

In Psalm 122 the focus immediately turns to a house and a city. The house, first, is the temple. That’s verse 1: “I was glad when said they to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’” That’s the temple, the place of worship. And then the city here is Jerusalem. That’s verses 2–3: “Our feet have been standing within your gates, O Jerusalem! Jerusalem — built as a city that is bound firm together.” 

So the psalmist talking about Jerusalem, but it’s not just any Jerusalem. This is a peaceful Jerusalem. This is a Jerusalem full of shalom, full of peace (Ps. 122:6), and according to verse 5, this is a Jerusalem under the rule of the “house of David.” Which is another mention of “house” here — which is interesting. That’s Psalm 122 — there’s Jerusalem in view with the temple, and there’s peace, and there’s the house of David. That’s the vision. 

Then with Psalm 123, the message there, short and simple, is that our eyes are on God to make this happen. Verse 1: “To you [God] I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens!” Verse 2: “Our eyes look to the Lord our God till he has mercy upon us.”

Then Psalm 124 comes in to assure us about God’s saving action in the past. Psalm 124 is a poetic description of the first exodus when God rescued his people from Egypt and divided the Red Sea. And the message here is that there’s no way Israel would exist “If it had not been the Lord who was on our side.” That’s said in verses 1 and 2, and again, we’re reminded, in verse 8: “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” 

Then in Psalm 125 we have another vision of Jerusalem. Verse 2: “As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people” — but again, this is not just any Jerusalem. This is a restored Jerusalem. This is a Jerusalem where, in verse 3, “The scepter of wickedness shall not rest on the land allotted to the righteous.” Then verse 5 tells us this is a land of peace: “Peace be upon Israel!”

Then in Psalm 126 there’s this longing for the restored Jerusalem, and notice: it’s in past tense — verse 1: “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion . . .” It’s past tense because, I think, it was written at a time when at least some of the Jewish exiles in Babylon were allowed to return back to Jerusalem. That of course happens in the Bible, in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, but what Psalm 126 is telling us here is that it wasn’t enough. At best it was a partial restoration. The full restoration the people of God longed for has not happened yet, and so the psalmist is asking God to do that: “Restore our fortunes, O Lord!” (v. 4). For good, he’s asking. That’s the prayer that leads into Psalm 127. The psalmist is hoping and praying and longing for a restored, new Jerusalem. And . . .

Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain! Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stays awake in vain.

The Problem Is Self-Salvation

See, this isn’t just any house, or any city. I think the house here, according to what we’ve seen, is referring to David’s house. The word “house” in Hebrew has a wide range of meaning. We’ve already seen the “house of the Lord” which refers to the physical temple. Then the “house of David” shows up, which means the family of David. And think David is in view here in verse 1.

And the city mentioned here is Jerusalem. That’s been clear in this section of psalms. Jerusalem, or Zion, has been a main theme.

And this is where, although these two verses apply broadly to all kinds of situations, the psalmist is saying something more direct. 

Unless the Lord builds the house of David, all man-made efforts will be worthless. Unless the Lord watches over Jerusalem, the best defenses will fail. 

The psalmist is talking about future hope here. He’s talking about the new Jerusalem that will come. He’s talking about the end-of-time reality when God rescues his people for good, which means the potential problem here is not just self-endeavor — it’s self-salvation. 

 

Self-salvation is when we try to bring about what only God can do. That’s the potential problem with the builders and watchmen here in verse 1. Maybe we can build and preserve the house of David. Maybe we can make and keep Jerusalem what it should be. 

See, the problem is that God has made a promise to do something, but we can try to take it into our own hands. That’s what I mean by self-salvation: “Self-salvation happens anytime we ourselves work toward a God-sized vision without God in the picture.” It’s when we ourselves try to manufacture and mass-produce miracles that do not happen apart from him. 

And do you know what the result is when we do that?

 

We get anxious. 

The Bread of Anxious Toil

Anxiety, see, is impartial to the types of things we may be doing. Anxiety doesn’t care about what we have going on. We may want God to act in a mighty way. We may be working toward good, godly things, and still we can get anxious about them. And when we get anxious we tend to work more. We tend to try harder, do better. That’s what’s happening here in verse 2. You’re getting up early because you got to get to work. You’re going to bed late because you can’t turn it off. It’s all-day, everyday, non-stop. You don’t get to take a break. You don’t get to catch your breath. Your life is consumed.  

And what’s interesting to me about this is that what the Bible calls “anxious toil” — we call “busy.” Think about that for a minute. The Bible shows us a picture of anxiety and we recognize it as just the way we get things done. This is just how we live. We don’t have time for decent sleep. We’ve got too much to do. We’re too busy. BUT — is it that we’re busy, or that we’re anxious?

Well, back in the Fourth Century, there was an early church leader who is quoted to have said (something like): “busyness is a blasphemous anxiety to do God’s work for him.”

So imagine this, what if: Sometimes our hard work, all of our busyness, is actually our anxiety that God’s not going to do something, so we better. 

And I want to be clear here. Let me focus this in. Two things to clarify:

First, I don’t want to over-apply this. Some of us have a lot of good and necessary things on our schedule, and we all have different routines and capacities that have to do with our life-situation and our vocations and all of that. And I understand that. I want to apply this specifically to how we think about God (if you want to connect the dots elsewhere in your life, feel free, but I’m talking about God and what it means to live by and for him). 

And second, to clarify, I’m not saying we don’t do things. We absolutely do things. God works through means. He works through you doing something. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you” (Phil. 2:12–13). “Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58). That’s not vain! We do things. We do spiritual work. So know that.  

But what I’m talking about here is when it comes to God-sized visions in our lives, in our families, in this church — when it comes to the things we want to see God do — the sure sign that we are trying to do God’s work for him is when we’re anxious. It’s when, in our hearts and minds, we grab for the steering wheel. It’s when we move into the place of thinking that God must be slacking off so we better pick it up, we’d better figure this out. That is the vanity of self-salvation. It’s when we have a need or a longing for God to do something, but we take our eyes off of him and we end up trying to do it on our own.

And it’s too easy to get there. So how do we not do that? [I’d like to know!]

I’m Not … I Can’t … I Won’t

Well, there’s a little prayer that might be helpful. This is for when you’re in situations and you want God to act, you want God to answer, and you don’t want to grab for the steering wheel. You don’t want to be on your own. It’s a simple prayer that starts with a confession of three negatives. It goes likes this. We pray: I’m not. I can’t. I won’t.  

  1. First, I’m not God. I’m just a man. I’m just a creature. I’m dust.
  2. Second, I can’t. I can’t make the sun rise. I can’t change the human heart. I can’t do what you, God, can do.
  3. Then third, so I won’t. I won’t take another step in this thing unless you, God, come and lead me in the details. I’m not going anywhere. If your presence will not go with me, I’m not moving. Moses prayed that (in Exodus 33). 

So we pray that — I’m not; I can’t; I won’t — and then that little prayer gives way to another prayer that says: you are; you can; you will

I’m not; I can’t; I won’t. // You are; you can; you will.

 

You, God, are the one from everlasting to everlasting. You, God, are the one who can do all that pleases you. You, God, are the one who will do every single thing you have promised. 

Which means, the Lord will build the house, and the Lord will watch over the city of Jerusalem.

The Great Promise of 2 Samuel 7

And we know God will do this because of a promise he made many years before this psalm was written. It’s one of the most important promises in the Bible, and it was made to King David back in the book of 2 Samuel, chapter 7. I can’t hardly overstate how important this promise this. 

[To give you an idea of how important I think it is, I only use colored pencils to highlight stuff in my Bible, but for this one I used a straight-up marker. It bled through a little on the other side, and that’s okay. This is that important.]

It’s a promise that God made to David back when David was king, and it’s one of those promises we’re supposed to remember as we read the rest of the Bible. We should have this promise in mind when we read the book of Psalms, and especially Psalm 127. The promise is in 2 Samuel 7. This is what God says to David, verse 11: 

And I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. [which means] When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. . . . [verse 16] And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever. (2 Sam. 7:11–13, 16)

God promised David that his offspring, one of his sons, would reign over his eternal kingdom. God is will build this house for David. He will give him offspring. That’s the hope. And when David’s son, Solomon, was born, a lot of that hope was put on him. 

Solomon was a son of David who became king after him, and Solomon built the temple. He built the house of the Lord, which is mentioned here. So one of the questions about 2 Samuel 7 is if God is talking about Solomon in this promise? Is this promise about Solomon or is it about children who will come in the future? Is it Solomon or a future son?

2. The Blessing of Children (verses 3–5)

Well, it’d be great to know what Solomon himself thought. And, actually, that’s what Psalm 127 is trying to show us. Notice at the top of Psalm 127,  in the superscript. There’s a little extra added in this superscript that makes it different from the rest. It’s called a “Song of Ascents. Of Solomon” — “Of Solomon” means this psalm is credited to him. Solomon wrote it. 

And so what is Solomon saying? Well, when Solomon thinks about this house, and when Solomon thinks about this restored Jerusalem — he knows God must build it; he knows it must be from God. Solomon knows that if it’s going to happen, God has to do it. But how does he know God will do it? What’s he banking on when it comes to God doing this?

[3] Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord,
the fruit of the womb a reward.
[4] Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are the children of one’s youth.
[5] Blessed is the man
who fills his quiver with them!

Solomon is standing on a promise about children, and it’s not just children in general. This is about promised offspring. And it’s not just any offspring. This the offspring of David. And that is Solomon’s hope. Solomon knows that he himself is not the fulfillment of 2 Samuel 7. Solomon himself is still looking ahead to the future. What is happening in Psalm 127 is that Solomon turns away from the vanity of self-salvation by looking to the blessing of children. That is how the two parts of this psalm are connected.

Solomon turns away from the vanity of self-salvation and he looks to children, namely, he looks to the promised offspring who will come after him to reign as king forever. And God loves to do it this way, you know. 

It would be like God to put the hope of the world in the hands of a baby.

 

Because that’s what he did. 

 

She was basically just a girl. She was a typical, young Jewish woman in First Century Palestine, and one day, practically out of nowhere, an angel comes to her and says, in Luke Chapter 1, 

Don’t be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. (Luke 1:30–33)

Jesus is the hope. The hope is in this baby boy named Jesus. 

Jesus is the one Solomon looks to in Psalm 127, and Jesus is the one we look to now. 

Whatever self-salvation project you may have going on right now. Whatever the God-sized vision is in our lives that we’re trying to do on our own. Now is when we stop. Now is when we look to Jesus. 

The Table

And Jesus himself helps us look to him. He helps us so much that he gives us tangible things to remind us about him and what he’s done. That’s what this Table is. Jesus has given us the bread and cup at this Table to symbolize his body and blood that he gave us at the cross. 

Jesus Christ died in the place of sinners, so that whoever believes in him will never perish but will have eternal life. He took our sins, he suffered the punishment we deserved, and he died for us so that we would live with him in his eternal kingdom, which is a future city called the New Jerusalem. And when we take this bread and this cup, we’re saying: I’ll be there. We’re saying: I’m looking to Jesus. I’m looking away from the vanity of self-salvation, and I’m looking to Jesus, and I’m going to be with him forever. . . .